One of my classmates this morning asked me whether I’d handed in my paper last week, or I’d asked for an extension. I made a face, saying, “I’m only taking one class! I have no excuses.” She laughed, and said, “Life! Life happens! That’s a good excuse!”
I went on to expound the rest of my excuse-vacuum—empty nest, traveling spouse—though it’s true that my days do end up quite full. But as I was talking, absorbing her presence, I felt myself back in my first grad program, talking about schoolwork to my colleagues there.
On the first go-round, I began with a seven-month-old and a twenty-two-month-old. (And a spouse who had full-time work, which I continue with, hurray!) I had traded the full time job for the full time schooling, which I considered gave me more breathing room than I’d had before. Coming into class one day, a classmate chattily turned and asked, “When did you finish your paper? I was up all night last night!” I said, “Friday afternoon.” She looked a little blank, and said, “How did you do that?” “Well, I have two babies. When I’m at home, they want to be with me, and it makes it really hard to work. Even when I try to get some time, they follow me…and it’s really hard to explain, ‘Mama has a paper to write, and she’ll be with you later.'” My colleague looked thoughtful.
I had many variations on that conversation during my MLIS; most of my full-time-student colleagues back then were young and single. This cohort of colleagues is more mixed in that regard, but I’m still a little out of phase what with my empty nest and the patronage for my poetry residency*.
One thing I knew during my first grad program was that I didn’t have time to spend on non-essentials. I’d forgone that nearly two years before I began, but it still threw my colleagues’ habits into a sharp light. There was a hard stop to my school week, so the work either finished by 5pm on a weekday or it wasn’t finished. It made it simpler to avoid procrastination, too, because I knew I’d be folding up all the work soon.
Now? Not so much. All the elements that once compressed my time, carved it up, squeezed the whey out of it…those are gone. After fifteen, twenty years of compression, my time feels incredibly loose. It’s certainly easier and breezier now that the individual moments matter less.
Except it’s not, as I routinely fret. One of the interesting gifts of That Contract was to shine a sharp light on how my lax approach to my days wasn’t, ultimately, working for me. Which in turn has spurred me to experiment with various forms. (…huh. Perhaps I should be thinking of day-structure the way I do my poems: white space thoughtfully deployed among words.)
I can’t, however, convey this struggle to my classmate. She’s in the early stages, and feels plenty constrained where she is. If she later decides for spouse and child, she’ll be constrained even further, as my D and his bride are experiencing. They’re in their fourth month of, “How is it humanly possible for me to get more sleep? And also get All Those Things finished??” When they’re a little better rested, they’ll look at their pre-baby selves and shake their heads at their naivete. I certainly did. While I was in the middle of it, it felt like moderately lossy compression… no essential bits left behind, but not every bit made the trip.
Now that there’s room, I’m uncompressing—expanding time back out again. I evidently have assumed that reversing the algorithm would yield something as evenly packed as my early-stage life, with no apparent wiggle room, but how could it? The redundancies and less-important bits were long since stripped away; besides, would I even want those any more?
But an uncompressed digital item, if it had a lossy algorithm like JPEG or MP3, can neither be put back to its original state nor filled in. It stays smaller, or tinnier. Days are not like that; their deleted spaces turn into… well, yes, a sort of vacuum. Pulling errant unconsidered elements in to brace the moments. Adding a seminary class has helped with that—though it’s more successful in its original mission, to provide compost for my brain.
Pausing, I am remembering that, even within my part-time work compression format, I was never quite satisfied with how I handled my desire for both full humming activity and responsively allocated days.
I’m reassured. I am on the proper track for now: adding in another class in the fall, seeing how the shifts affect my primary focus… .
There’s time, after all, to work this out.
*That is, My Sweetie’s great gift of support for our entire household, which makes it possible for me to give my primary focus to my writing. Somewhere in the world, there’s an article that C once found that frames this patron-of-the-arts idea beautifully. When I find it again, I’ll tuck it in here.